Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929

book coverI’m behind on book reviews (very, very behind) but I finally read the last pages of this today and just had to say something. And that something is: this book is fascinating and quite relevant to my own work (how great when that happens!)

The book traces the Seattle labor movement’s transformation from incredibly powerful and fairly radical leading up to the 1919 general strike to the fairly toothless business unionist AFL version of the mid to late 1920s. Frank attributes the decline to a variety of factors, but racism and sexism are front and center. As is the government’s suppression of radicals leading up to and during the Red Scare (something covered more extensively in Paul Avrich’s books on anarchism).

What was most relevant to me in all this was the consumer-based strategies Seattle labor used, first in 1919 and then again in the mid/late-1920s. In both cases, the idea was to use consumer (working class consumer) purchasing power via boycotts, “buy union” labels, etc. to advance the union cause. Now there are two super interesting things about this for me: (1) how a consumer strategy lends itself to both radical (1919) and conservative (mid-1920s) visions of labor and (2) why consumer strategies mostly failed.

On (1) — the radical version was possible only when the consumer-focus was a complement to resistance and the point of production, as part of a larger and broader vision of a working class society. In this version, labor also didn’t *just* use things like the union label and shop cards, they also engaged in super interesting experimentation with things like cooperatives, which allowed for some distance to be maintained between labor and capital (because via the cooperatives, labor could attempt to compete directly with capital as a source of goods). I’ve now purchased about a half dozen books on the use of cooperatives in US history. When do they work? Can they? Why don’t we see more of them? Who uses cooperatives today? As costs lower, why don’t we see a co-op version of Uber? Or any of the other zillion “on-demand economy” companies?

On (2) — the failure is tied to, among other things, ongoing sexism and racism. As an example, women did 80-90% of all family shopping, which meant that for consumer organizing to work, women had to be on board. But in both 1919 and the mid-1920s, women were almost wholly excluded from labor. Women who worked outside the home were almost invariably excluded from unions [married women were rejected from unions in 1919 and funds were withdrawn for female organizers in 1922] and women who worked in the home were not even considered workers at all. It’s thus no great surprise that women did not identify with the movement and thus had little motivation to spend the extra time and energy (i.e. work) necessary to seek out pro-union shops and goods. As for race, it’s a similar issue. Seattle labor was by and large unwilling to admit non-whites into membership. But that meant that non-whites had little motivation to support a white-only consumer movement.

Long story short: the book was fascinating and has left me with (literally) pages of notes and questions. So much more to know! Highly recommended!

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